Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee

Bobcat and Other Stories is a whip-smart collection by Rebecca Lee, a native of Saskatchewan who now lives in the USA. The stories are longish -- 30 to 40 pages -- and focus on the inner lives of the characters.

"Standing in front of the mirror, it occurred to me that Lizbet and I were living out our mothers' dreams for us -- mine that I finally be pregnant and Lizbet's mother's dearest desire that she never be pregnant. Our mothers had met in a consciousness-raising group in late 1967, in the East Village. They had become best friends, even though Lizbet's mother was a radical feminist, even a lesbian separatist for a while, without ever working up to actually sleeping with other women, and my own mother liked feminism as a sort of hobby, and a way to chat with a big, cozy group of women, eating coffee cakes. Once she told me that feminism had given her some good 'tips' for dealing with husbands, such as don't cry; resist."

That's from 'Bobcat,' the title story, in which a dinner party is fraught with suspicion and lies. Partway through the evening, the host and another woman stand weeping on the balcony while the rest remain in high spirits at the candlelit table behind them. "The city never disappoints [...]. Kitty and I both looked out at it now -- the lights, its long, winding roads, the million interiors. It doesn't know what you want so it tries to give you everything."

There's a quality of longing, or of inchoate need, that runs through the collection. The characters are mostly of university age, still sorting themselves out. Descriptive passages pulse with originality.

"My roommate Solveig was permanently tan. She went twice a week to a tanning salon and bleached her hair frequently, so that it looked like radioactive foliage growing out of dark, moody sands. Despite all this she was very beautiful, and sensible." (From 'The Banks of the Vistula.')

My favourite story is 'Min.' A young American woman is asked to find a wife for her friend in Hong Kong, shortly before the reunion of Hong Kong with China. The situation of Vietnamese refugees features prominently and, coincidentally, I'm also reading about Sri Lankan refugees in Australia (in Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel) and Saharawi refugees in Algeria (in Marcello di Cintio's Walls).

Readalikes: Sleeping Funny (Miranda Hill); And Also Sharks (Jessica Westhead); Dark Roots (Cate Kennedy); and Postcard and Other Stories (Anik See). I'll suggest A Song for Nettie Johnson too, because if Gloria Sawai had been writing and publishing stories when she was younger, they probably would have been like Rebecca Lee's.

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